Science-loving Philadelphians of all kinds are taking advantage of a continuing education of sorts at a half-dozen science nights held at bars around the city.
On a drizzly January evening, the front room of Frankford Hall in Fishtown was full of people hoisting one-liter beer steins and scarfing down sausages.
There was entertainment, including a guitarist and a stand-up comedian, but the stars of the show were the self-proclaimed nerds speaking in front of PowerPoint presentations.
“I am Scicurious,” the first said. “By day, I am a mild-mannered pharmacologist and researcher, and by night I am a science blogger.”
The format for the monthly Nerd Nite gathering is always the same: Three speakers present information on different topic for 20 minutes each, with performances in between.
Scicurious, who presented on the research surrounding whether cell phones may cause cancer, blogs for Scientific American magazine under a pseudonym to avoid hate mail about her research involving animals. She said she was happy to interact with a live audience, rather than one on the other side of her computer screen.
“It’s really great to have this opportunity to educate, in an entertaining way, about how science works and what science can tell us and what it can’t,” she said.
Nerd Nite is perhaps the most eclectic of the city’s half-dozen or so science bar nights. Presentation topics have ranged from lock-picking to the search for life outside our solar system.
National Mechanics in Old City plays host once a month to Science On Tap, which has a more narrow focus.
In its most recent edition, forensic chemist Antoinette Thwaites spoke about how she identifies drugs confiscated after arrests.
An older and more well-heeled crowd gathers monthly in a back room of an Italian restaurant in Rittenhouse Square, and the University of Pennsylvania organizes two monthly science cafés of its own.
Though the vibe at each venue is distinct, the idea is the same — invite passionate people to talk about what they know best and encourage questions.
“And we really encourage the drinking of beer,” said Michelle Bland, who co-founded Nerd Nite a year ago. She modeled it after Nerd Nite Boston, which started in 2003 and has spawned similar events in almost 30 cities. The group even launched a magazine this month.
“I think humans are an intellectual species,” Bland said. “We like to use our brains and Nerd Nite is a good way to do it.”
Bland says she has been inspired reading about the gatherings of the Junto that Benjamin Franklin hosted centuries ago.
“He and a group of friends would get together, and they had this long list of questions they’d talk about, the scientific issues of the day,” Bland said. “While I can’t claim Nerd Nite is the re-creation of that, it seems that looking back at what people used to do is in vogue, and I think Nerd Nite might reflect some of that.”
Jim Bazis, a Nerd Nite attendee who lives in South Philadelphia, has a slightly less cerebral explanation.
“Everybody’s kind of sick of going out to a bar to drink and watch a game,” Bazis said. “Everybody wants to do something more constructive, something useful, and something where they can learn.”
And, of course, spend time with other self-proclaimed nerds.